The Canadian connection runs across Punjabi music and film stars

The diaspora has helped spark a cultural revolution

1403945858 Winning lines: Diljit Dosanjh performs at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver | Getty images

Every day is a winding road,” sang American songwriter and singer Sheryl Crow. Her hit number is an anthem of daily struggles. But, in Punjab, this could easily apply for stardom. All roads to celebrity fame in the state these days lead through Canada. And it is paved in Brampton, the Punjabi hub in Ontario. As Sidhu Moose Wala, the poster boy of the fame that comes from Canada, sang in his hit song “B-Town”, “...this is Brampton! Where everything & anything can happen!”

This is Punjabi lyrics with a western beat, with videos of flashy big cars, booze, guns, blaring woofers, easy money and geared for success. It has become the breakthrough Indian export of recent times.

Moose Wala arrived in Canada as Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, and in a short career that lasted five years—ending with his murder in 2022—went from rapper to politician. He had an engineering degree and had enrolled in a college in Ontario in 2016. By 2017, he burst on to the Punjabi global music-scene with “So High”, winning the best lyricist award at the Brit Asia TV Music Awards to become Sidhu Moose Wala. The rapper became an icon after his death. His tragedy mimicked the story of guns and violence that dominated his lyrics.

“There are many factors,’’ says filmmaker Daljit Ami about the popularity of Punjabi artistes in Canada. “There is state support for culture. Canada is a multicultural space. There are grants for culture and language, creating an environment for diverse cultural expressions to find their space on television and radio.”

The Canadian connection runs across Punjabi music and film stars. Any Punjabi lead actor worth his salt, from Gurdas Mann onwards, earns his stripes by making a name as a singer. The Punjabi hero is very much in the Kishore Kumar mould, a singer-actor. And Canada—the creative hub for Punjab—is the place where breaks for superstardom come true. Even Akshay Kumar had a Canadian passport until recently. Rapper AP Dhillon went to Canada with just two suitcases in 2015. From being an assistant at petrol stations, he became the first Punjabi singer to perform at the Juno Awards this year.

Diljit Dosanjh, the first Indian to be featured at the Coachella music festival, drove a truck for four years before he got a break. His tour last year—at the biggest stadiums across Canada—was sold out. The richest Punjabi singer Sharry Mann; Jazzy B (Jaswinder Singh Bains) who is considered to be the crown prince of bhangra; producer-actor-singer Gippy Grewal of the Carry On Jatta fame—all live in Canada. As does Neeru Bajwa, who made her debut with a Dev Anand film and later moved to Punjabi cinema to become one of its most prolific and popular stars. Grewal, who recently bought himself a private jet, used to sweep floors at Subway till he got his break.

According to the latest census, Punjabi Canadians number nearly a million, accounting for 2.6 per cent of the country’s population. Along with 3.4 lakh students from the state, they offer a captive market. The students, who spend about 68,000 crore there, and the diaspora have helped spark a cultural revolution—a made-in-India dream realised in Canada. “Punjabi music in Canada goes beyond just Punjabi speakers, it is the Canadian multicultural story,’’ says Sukhi Kaur, a radio jockey. “This is mainstream Canadian music.”

Dhillon’s “Brown Munde” is very much the anthem for this dream as Punjabi boys who once worked in restaurants now rule the entertainment scene. This is Punjabi lyrics with a western beat, with videos of flashy big cars, booze, guns, blaring woofers, easy money and geared for success. It has become the breakthrough Indian export of recent times. “The music is for the youth,’’ says Arvinder Chamak, poet, playwright and filmmaker. “It is aimed to give a synthetic ‘high’.”

This new ‘high’ is a shift from the earlier Punjabi music—whether it is folk, which kept the first generation immigrants tied to their roots, or the sufi music. The sound is contemporary, western, with the lyrics in Punjabi—the Chetan Bhagat version, but in gangsta style, fuelled by the burning ambition of the young. “Everything is loud,’’ says Chamak. “The music is loud, the life is loud and the lifestyle is loud.”

And this is what makes it addictive. For a generation that grew up in Canada, trying to find their place in the country, this music is also very much about their ‘voice’. “India is our country. We came to Canada in search of greener pastures. But we still miss home,” says Jasbir Romana, a radio show host. “We listened to Gurdas Mann, Malkit Singh. But this was not the language our kids understood, they wanted to hear songs in the language and the rhythm that they understood.”

The new singers represent the aspirations of this generation. Their videos mirror their lives—and, to those in Punjab, they offer a glimpse of the glamorous life that is within reach. Their popularity marks a shift in the way music is being consumed. “Earlier it was folk music that was heard by an older generation,’’ says Romana. But now with music written by the young and streamed by them, the dynamics of the market have changed. It is driven by social media. “Earlier you needed distributions, and artistes spent money in cutting albums. Now this whole process, courtesy technology, has become a global enterprise. You design in Germany, record in India and shoot in Canada,’’ says Chamak. With likes and views being the way to success, fame is only a click away.